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Creating E-Commerce Courses with Regional Intent

How one university in China created and incorporated e-commerce courses with due speed and native reference tools.
  1. Introduction
  2. E-Commerce Courses at Xiamen U.
  3. Opening Day
  4. Conclusion
  5. Authors
  6. Footnotes

Staff members in the administrative offices of Xiamen University never anticipated the degree of interest and enthusiasm its students would show for e-commerce courses. Indeed, that enthusiasm translated to over 1,000 registrants for an elective course entitled "Electronic Commerce and Multimedia Network Communications" offered during the 2000–2001 Fall semester. The offering of six sessions simultaneously could not satisfy the enormous demand. There were still hundreds of students disappointed by not being able to register for the course; some resorted to calling in favors just to place their name on the waiting list.

The university’s original plan was to offer the course to a few dozen students. But once this overwhelming response became apparent, university administrators and teaching professionals decided to rewrite university policy and scheduled classes on Saturdays and Sundays. The students, it seems, were more than willing to take e-commerce classes on weekends.

What was all the fuss about?

In fact, the number of online users in China reached 22.5 million by the end of 2000, according to a report released by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) in January 2001. Some 70% of the users were male and 60% were under the age of 30. Close to a quarter of China’s online users visited e-commerce Web sites frequently and more than 30% purchased commodities or services via the Internet in 2000. The majority of items purchased were books and magazines (58%), computer appliances (37%), AV equipment (29%) and communication appliances (20%). Moreover, more than half of the users (58%) predicted large-scale e-commerce would be realized in China within three years with online shopping, online communication, online education, and online stock trading as the most promising areas.

According to CCID Consulting—an organization under the Ministry of Information Industry of China—there were 677 domestic business-to-customer (B2C) sites and 370 business-to-business (B2B) sites by the end of 2000. The majority of these sites are based in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong—areas in China where both Internet and e-commerce growth have escalated the fastest. The total e-commerce volume in 2000 was 77.2 billion RMB1 (US$9.33 billion). It was expected to grow another 29% to 95.5 billion RMB (US$11.57 billion) by year-end 2001.

The high-speed growth of the Internet population in China, coupled with the strong prospects for e-commerce success, attract students and managers in China as in the West. Here is how we handled it locally.

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E-Commerce Courses at Xiamen U.

Since an elective course is normally a supplement to the core academic curriculum, there are fewer restraints in terms of managing the course content and organization, the delivery mode and technique, and the use of course materials. Given the magnitude of registered students for the e-commerce course, however, the entire strategy had to be changed in order to satisfy the student needs.

Adopting any of the existing e-commerce textbooks for use in a Chinese university did not seem appropriate given the lack of indigenous contents about regional business practices. Therefore, a team of four instructors would, in essence, create an e-commerce textbook specifically for this course containing both theoretical concepts and practical and indigenous examples of e-commerce.

We first focused on developing a new set of course materials. As the class size was close to 200 students per session (versus the 30–40 students we originally anticipated), it was very difficult, if not impossible, to expect much interaction between the instructor and students. Therefore, the clarity and completeness of the course material became extremely important.

E-commerce courses, long popular in colleges and universities in the U.S. and other developed countries, have propelled an abundance of textbooks on this subject for undergraduate and graduate levels. However, adopting any of the existing textbooks for use in a Chinese university did not seem appropriate given the lack of indigenous contents about regional business practices. Therefore, it was decided a team of four instructors would, in essence, create an e-commerce textbook specifically for this course containing both theoretical concepts and practical and indigenous examples of e-commerce.

To make the course material complete, the instructors decided to strive toward publishing a course book by October 2000, when classes were scheduled to commence. Several national book publishers, including Tsinghua University Press2 (TUP) and Beijing Hope Electronic Press3 (BHP), were contacted as soon as the contents was confirmed by the teaching team. TUP would consider the request while BHP indicated they could publish the book within a month provided the material could be finalized by August. This response inspired the teaching team to work around the clock, in cafeterias, offices, and laboratories. The final pages were indeed completed on August 21. The first copies of the book were delivered to Xiamen University on October 1—also known as China’s National Day.

Again, the large number of participating students necessitated courses to be scheduled Mondays and Thursdays (days set aside for elective courses) as well as Saturdays and Sundays. In a show of support, senior administrators allocated 50,000RMB from the university’s budget to this project for additional expenses in terms of teaching tools or laboratory equipment.4

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Opening Day

The course was delivered in four phases. Due to environmental constraints, the first phase was conducted in a large classroom with a seating capacity of 240. The classroom was equipped with audio, but no video or projection facilities. The instructor had to explain the course material orally, obviously making seldom use of the blackboard. Instructors focused lectures on the factual and essential contents in point form and provided practical examples to ensure students understood the material.

The second phase was conducted in a multimedia classroom, with classes divided into tutorial groups meeting on alternate weeks. In this classroom, the teaching methods could incorporate illustrations and hands-on examples of well-known e-commerce Web sites worldwide.

The third phase was the laboratory sessions where students learned to develop and design Web sites. Here, students had the opportunity to grasp the key concepts covered in the course and to experience the connection between theory and practice.

The last phase consisted of an exam that was created not to test students’ recall, but their understanding of key concepts and techniques covered in the course. The two-part exam involved a written test and technological quest. Students were given 20 hours to design and develop a Web site. The site was assessed according to the criteria taught during the class.

A Web site was developed for this course to collect students’ feedback. More than 100 students registered for it; dozens of comments and suggestions were contributed over the duration of the course. Teachers usually responded to the comments within a few days.

Comments were solicited to identify areas for improvement in future courses. While most students indicated the textbook, teaching methods, and the exam format were suitable, others freely criticized the format and offered constructive suggestions.

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Internet technology is having a profound effect on global trade. With China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, executives both from the West and China need to understand not just the opportunities offered by this new trading mode, but also how to harness the rapidly advancing Internet technology to compete in the e-commerce world.

While e-commerce courses are offered at most colleges and universities in the West to equip the next generation of managers with necessary knowledge and skills for competing in the e-commerce business world, Chinese universities are just now beginning to offer similar courses. The e-commerce course described here represents one such attempt by a major university in China. It also clearly illustrates the huge demand for and the scare supply of such courses. Nevertheless, it is expected that many more colleges and universities in China will be anxious to offer courses in e-commerce at all levels.

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    1China's currency is RMB with an exchange rate of about 8.26RMB to 1USD.

    2Beijing-based TUP is generally considered the MIT of China.

    3BHP specialized in technology-related reference books.

    4To appreciate the enormity of this support, consider the average university instructor at a Chinese university earns 1,000 to 3,000RMB per month.

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